California’s rent relief program

By Leora Tanjuatco Ross

(Originally appeared here in the San Mateo Daily Journal)

“I cannot live this way. I need help.” I received this text message two weeks ago, from a woman who lives in Daly City with her 84-year-old mother and twin daughters, who are in high school. In the simplest of ways, she needed relief. She explained to me that piecing together the rent every month was getting more and more difficult. It was nearing the impossible. She was at the end of her rope.

This story is a common one, particularly in the Bay Area. But this time, our federal and state governments have stepped in to help.

In January of this year, the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 91, which makes creative use of federal stimulus money to address the pressures experienced by both renters and landlords over the past year. In the face of illness and jobs lost due to COVID, many renters have been unable to pay their full rent and are now seriously in arrears, sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. At the same time, their landlords have faced the loss of their customary revenue stream, putting some of them at risk of losing their investment properties. In response to these pressures, the state approved the use of $2.6 billion of federal stimulus money to backfill the missed rent. For San Mateo County alone, $75 million in rent relief funding is available.

The outlines of the program are simple:

1). If landlords agree to forgive 20% of the rent that went unpaid for the period from April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, the state will pay them the other 80%.

2). Assuming the landlord takes the state up on its offer, the tenant is then permanently relieved of the full amount of the accumulated debt.

However, almost five months after the state allocated this money, only 1% of the available funds have been distributed. For people who are precariously housed, this money is the only thing preventing them from homelessness.

In our outreach, we discovered that many members of the community are still completely unaware of this generous rent relief program. According to County Manager Mike Callagy, of the $75 million in rent relief funding available, less than a third has even been requested to date. In North County, leaders from Faith in Action Bay Area have been phone banking and have now made 719 calls to small landlords. Of those they have talked to, 86% did not know about the program. Meanwhile, 88% had tenants who had been unable to pay full rent during the pandemic. Clearly, there is widespread need that these funds could help to fill.

This rent relief program has the potential to be a high-impact win-win that brings life-changing relief to both landlords and tenants. But first they must learn about it.

Help us spread the word: Are you a small landlord yourself? Do you know of landlords in your congregations, workplaces or service clubs? Do you have neighbors who are landlords? If so, please encourage them to investigate this novel program of relief.

Are you a community leader or an elected official? Please help us spread the word about this program. Tell your friends, neighbors and networks. If you’re an elected official, please ask your city to send out a mailer with the information about this program, as Redwood City recently has done.

Most importantly, we call upon San Mateo County to use its considerable resources to get the word out about SB 91. Pull out the stops. An aggressive outreach effort will help to prevent a tsunami of homelessness that easily could overcome our community in the near future. In the effort to increase utilization of this high-impact program, county leadership is key.

There are resources for tenants and landlords. Faith in Action Bay Area is offering to help landlords with the application process. To access this help, please contact abby@faithinactionba.org. Other local organizations involved in providing assistance are Samaritan House, Project Sentinel, Nuestra Casa de East Palo Alto, and International Rescue Committee. To apply for this relief and for more information, including details on which tenants are eligible, please visit https://housingiskey.com.

Even if landlords do not apply, tenants can apply to receive 25% of rent debt for the same period of April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021. Renters wanting more information are encouraged to email onesanmateo@onesanmateo.org or to contact one of the other organizations listed above.

Leora Tanjuatco Rossis the associate director of the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County.

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